Analysis: Islamic State’s soft weapon of choice: social media


Wedged between tweets last week about Britain’s economy, kilts and “The Simpsons’” Groundskeeper Willie was a Twitter message in Arabic that included the hashtags “#Scotland” and “#ScotlandDecides.”

But a link within the tweet’s 140 characters wasn’t referring to Scotland’s independence referendum. It instead led to a hostage video on YouTube, since removed, of British journalist John Cantlie reading a scripted message from his captors, the Islamic State.

This sort of bait and switch is one of many Digital Age tactics the militant group has deployed in its otherwise bloody campaign to create an Islamic caliphate across the Mideast. For the Islamic State, social media is a soft weapon that’s helped it build the appearance of omnipresence, despite its small numbers in the real world.


Whether developing its own Android app or amassing Twitterbot armies to publishing a high-design Web magazine that glorifies the lifestyle of its fighters, there are few digital platforms the group hasn’t infiltrated.

“The savviness of the IS campaign belies that notion of [the terrorist as] cave dweller,” says Todd Helmus, a senior behavioral scientist with Rand Corp. who wrote reports on militant recruitment. “That said, there’s something they’re capturing about the appeal of going back to the old days of fighting. The deep-seated notion of fighting an age-old fight. They have managed to capture that zeitgeist.”

Taking full advantage of its current ability to control the message and image, the group is portraying itself as a militia with many sides.

Videos posted on various YouTube accounts show bearded fighters tending to children and aiding the infirm. Others feature shots of well-groomed fighters, trekking through the desert together in a show of camaraderie.

“They are able to leverage a variety of different messages that can appeal to a number of different people,” says Helmus. “They not only have campaigns showing beheadings, they have campaigns showing their humanitarian efforts, their governance efforts, showing [militants] handing out ice cream cones.”

For potential recruits raised in front of Xbox consoles, the Islamic State says its making its own video game and released a trailer modeled after the violent and vice-filled “Grand Theft Auto.” It also offers its own promotional wear, which can be bought in online gift shops. Islamic State hoodies, bandannas and baseball caps (“We Are All ISIS,” reads one slogan) are part of what some are now calling a “global terror brand.”


Though the group is pop culture savvy, it’s the Islamic State’s primitive garb and barren desert backdrops in videos and magazine stills that promise a connection to a simpler (albeit mythical) time. The images dovetail with the notion of returning to a more pure form of the faith, an idea inherent in the particularly rigid strain of Islam that the Sunni extremist group follows.

The al Qaeda splinter group’s changing name — Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, IS — seems about the only aspect of the terrorist organization that hasn’t been branded as carefully as a new Apple product.

A media arm of the organization reportedly coordinates its digital campaigns. When Facebook or YouTube identifies and shuts down an Islamic State-sponsored account, several new ones pop up in a virtual game of whack-a-mole.

“No one else in extremism is using social media as effectively as the Islamic State right now,” says J.M. Berger, editor of and author of the recent study “How ISIS Games Twitter.” “I am sure many are watching what they do with the intention to emulate it.”

Berger adds that social media “essentially supplements the old shoe leather method of recruiting, which still happens and is very effective.”

Whereas al Qaeda’s early recruiting efforts largely took place in hidden chat rooms that one had to know about to join, the Islamic State reaches potential followers, including English speakers, who might stumble on its messages through Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn.


“You don’t necessary have to be following a jihadi in Syria to be exposed to the Islamic State,” says Helmus. “You could be following someone for perhaps religious reasons and hear their messages. All that serves to make it feel more powerful, more successful. It gives the image the crowd is in it, it is a cause worthy of joining, and you’re going to win.”

The CIA recently calculated that 20,000 to 31,500 Islamic State fighters are in Syria and Iraq and that 2,000 Westerners have joined its ranks in Syria alone.

One of them might be a failed rapper from London.

The British intelligence agency MI5 believes it’s identified the masked, English-accented man responsible for the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Far from the image the West once had of the terrorist in training — an impoverished boy growing up hungry in war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan — this particular recruit reportedly came from a million-dollar London home likely equipped with Wi-Fi, computers and handheld devices. He may have been drawn to the Islamic State by the very same sites and applications he used to try launching a music career.

Other Islamic State recruits from the West have been identified by government security agencies as coming from well-to-do European families and middle-class American households — all places where the dream of a caliphate shouldn’t particularly resonate, all places where disenfranchisement from peers and connectivity through social media is part of daily life.

The man suspected by MI5 once sought attention by uploading his own amateur rap videos to YouTube. He posted under different monikers and on several social media sites, including SoundCloud. On his Facebook page last year, he reportedly wrote of his alcohol abuse and crack addiction. When the world didn’t pay much heed to the wanna-be rapper in a low-slung baseball cap, it appears he went looking elsewhere to make his mark.


The Islamic State did what he couldn’t. It made people pay attention through the vast tangle of the Internet. It was noticed above every other photo-posting, video-streaming, friend-amassing tweeter and Instagrammer. And that kind of multiplatform power can make a kid — or a militant group — appear more popular and powerful than they actually are.

Twitter: @LorraineAli